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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 428-430
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At the 2001 MLA convention, historian Gary Okihiro proclaimed "the death of ethnic studies," not so much to declare obsolete the still elusive goals of racial equality and social justice but, rather, to point out the limitations of cultural nationalist models. More than ever, scholars have become aware of the problems inherent in the "old" ethnic studies—racial essentializing; disregard of other categories of difference, such as class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, and education; and reliance on models of internalized colonialism—as newer work reveals the full complexity of social and political identification and formation.
In keeping with this current consciousness, both David Palumbo-Liu's Asian/American and Sheng-mei Ma's The Deathly Embrace work to redefine Asian American cultural studies. Palumbo-Liu's comprehensive study will have lasting value for scholars in this rapidly changing field. The book moves away from familiar binary oppositions, arguing instead for "the centrality of Asia to the imagining of modern America" (2). Without denying the history of marginalization and racism, the book shifts attention to how certain manifestations of "Asian American" hybridity, the "uneven, complex, and multiple imbrications of Asians in America" (3), have long been employed strategically by particular historical interests.
Each of ten chapters addresses an impressive array of subjects ranging from early-twentieth-century immigration policies to 1990s cyberfiction. Palumbo-Liu comments with equal authority on the writings of sociologist Robert E. Park, the post–World War II history of cosmetic surgery on Asian eyes, Southeast Asian refugee policy, 1970s urban redevelopment, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The book also generates astute readings of twentieth-century literature and films; of particular note are his readings of Younghill Kang's East Goes West, Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter, C. Y. Lee's Flower Drum Song, Daniel Okimoto's American in Disguise, Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, and (tucked into an appendix) Maxine Hong Kingston's novels. These far-ranging topics are knit together thematically through the constructs of body, psyche, and space.
Each chapter demonstrates a solid historical perspective as well as thoughtful critical analysis and considerable political acumen. Chapter 1, for instance, [End Page 428] moves through an accounting of early-twentieth-century anti-Asian sentiment as manifested in immigration, naturalization, and anti-miscegenation policies and the eugenics movement; this sets the stage beautifully for the second chapter's demonstration of how 1930s narratives and film, such as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series, H. T. Tsiang's And China Has Hands, and Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen, counter such terms with a more anxious imagining of "hybrid" identity.
Particularly noteworthy are the book's tracings of the "model minority" myth from earlier in the century into its post–Civil Rights incarnations. As one example, Palumbo-Liu examines a remarkable Newsweek cover that appeared during the L.A. rebellion after the beating of Rodney King: the image of a young Korean man holding a semiautomatic handgun and wearing a Malcolm X tee shirt with the caption "By any means necessary." For Palumbo-Liu, this is a "perverse ventriloquism" in which both icons of Black Power and model minority discourse are translated into a defense of a particular capitalistic regime: "If white America was repulsed by the image of the anti-black violence of the King beating, it could react positively, immediately, and with ethical purity when viewing Asian Americans defending themselves against black and Latino looters" (188–89). The book remains wary throughout of the class dynamics that have splintered Asian Americans away "from progressive political engagement, by working to convince many Asian Americans themselves of their privileged status and the conservative logic that underwrites it...